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If You Love Somebody, If You Love Someone…

by Dr. Tom NealJanuary 15, 2019

Just for today, I will not try to improve or regulate someone else. (Al-Anon’s Just for Today bookmark)

Shortly after I got married, a friend who had been married for years said to me, with a wry smile, The trouble with marriage is women hope it’s going to change their husband, while men hope it won’t change their wife—and both are disappointed!

After we laughed, he said, “The key to marital success is, first love each other as is, warts and all. Then each work to change yourself to be better for the other. Only then can real influence begin.”

The human compulsion to control others’ lives, for better or for worse, wreaks havoc when it’s not informed by freedom-honoring love. Love does not coerce or manipulate others—through shame, guilt, deception, or fear—to become what we want them to be or think they should be. Love proposes, never imposes. The “otherness” of others can be all-at-once painful to accept and a joie de vivre. Live in the tension.

A friend’s parenting advice to my wife and me, written in a letter after our second son’s birth, resounded with this tension:

Don’t coddle them. Don’t smother them. Don’t overwater them. Love them. Make them work. Be there for them. Let them succeed. Let them fail. Help them up if they ask. Impart your wisdom when they’re ready, not before. Let them earn the right to hear it. Natural consequences of decisions are far better teachers than your manufactured ones. Don’t make them like you. Make them like themselves. Don’t tell them what to do; help them know how to know what to do. Help them discover their own God-given path. Pray for them…

One thing is very clear from looking at the universe God designed: God loves extreme variety. Really extreme. Just one example I love: there are about 17,500 species of butterflies and 160,000 species of moths in the world. Crazy! The differences between each person are vast and superabound. Our unique fingerprint is our glory. Diverse physical features, races, ethnicities, cultures, personalities, intellectual bents, political persuasions, religious sensibilities, musical tastes, senses of humor, likes and dislikes, gifts, talents, strengths, weaknesses, abilities, disabilities, virtues, vices, and on and on and on. Some differences complement and click, while others clash and collide.

Goodness is kaleidoscopic, while evil is monolithic; and mercy turns even evil’s flattening sameness into a new palette dappled with infinitely varied colors. Think of the many types of sinners-to-saints.

Love alone, wed to catholic truth, binds irreducible multiplicity into a universe, purifying and leading all to perfect unity (Col. 3:14’s teleiotētos!). Love alone makes the wild (and oft painful) tensions of difference wildly creative.

Hardest of all, though, is the love that allows people in our lives the freedom to rebel, to reject, to run away from us; from what we stand for; from truth; from God. The love that forgives, that seeks forgiveness. In the prodigal son story, the father did not guilt or shame or condemn the selfish son at his departure or upon his return. He patiently waited, he quietly suffered, he secretly pardoned, he loved him from within the distance, even as the father stood his ground and hoped that the memory of a home and heart full of love would one day draw his son back. And when the son returned, while the elder brother gripped tight to his manipulative and self-righteous rage, the father ran and embraced, celebrated and danced.

It’s truly the parable of the cross and Resurrection, of prodigal love—and of its opposite.

Recently, when I was vehemently trying to protect one of my daughters from what I saw as a potentially bad situation, she said, “Dad, let go.” I said, “No!” And we burst out laughing.

O Lord, help me, just for today, not to try to improve or regulate someone else. Just to love them, simply love them, merely love them, love them, love…

About the Author

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans...

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